SPECIAL DELIVERY FROM MICHIGAN

SPECIAL DELIVERY FROM MICHIGAN

From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

Special Delivery from Michigan

The older you get, the more you realize that kindness is synonymous with happiness.

Lionel Barrymore

The kid in the picture was holding up a ball. It looked like a baseball without its cover, with just the string wrapped around the core. From my childhood, I remembered the kind of buzzing sound those uncovered baseballs made as they sailed past, trailing two feet of string.

The picture was taken in San Pedro de Macoris, a city of 130,000 in the Dominican Republic; it was part of a series written by Glen Mac now, then a Detroit Free Press sportswriter, on winter baseball in the Dominican Republic. “For youngsters in San Pedro,” Mac now wrote, “baseball is one of the dominant things in life. Another is poverty.” He talked about watching twenty shoeless kids play ball on a mud street called Calle de Restauracion.

“The ball was actually a woman’s nylon stocking wound tightly with rubber bands,” he said, “and the bat was a broken table leg that still had nails in it, and the bases were paint-can lids. None of the kids had gloves. They tied pieces of cardboard on their hands and shaped them so they could catch the ball.” San Pedro is a long way from the vacant lots of Detroit, but there’s a world-shrinking sameness about kids playing baseball with a cover less ball.

Pedro Gonzalez, an Atlanta Braves coach and a former major-league infielder, lives in San Pedro. So do Pedro Guerrero of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Joaquin Andujar of the Oakland A’s. Last year, in fact, fifteen men from San Pedro, which calls itself the Baseball Capital of the World, played in the American Major Leagues. “American parents want their children to become doctors or lawyers,” Gonzalez told Macnow. “But here, the way to get rich is to be a baseball player. That’s the way out.”

I soon found myself thinking about all the major-league dreams in my old neighborhood. No matter how farfetched those dreams were, they were an important part of growing up. And regardless of how tight the money was in those years, if there wasn’t a glove for everybody, there were always enough to share.

Then a plan started forming in my mind. I thought about all the old gloves sitting in attics, closets and basements, their days of glory just distant memories. I asked readers to get out those gloves, dust them off and send them to me at the Free Press. We’d ship them to San Pedro and distribute them to the kids there. I said to look at it this way: The old glove never got you a tryout with the Tigers. Why not give it another chance?

Peter Gavrilovich, another Free Press writer, wandered into my office just before the first gloves arrived. “You don’t understand the depth of a relationship between a man and his baseball,” he told me. “Do you seriously expect people to send you their old gloves? Ask them for money, but not for their old gloves.” He predicted we’d receive fewer than two dozen.

What if he’s right? I thought. It just might not be possible to separate people from baseball gloves that carry so many rich memories. Would I send my first glove, even if I still had it, to some kids on a Caribbean island? I wasn’t sure.

Later that morning a box arrived in the mail. It was from Tom Kolinsky in Watersmeet, a town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “Enclosed are three baseball gloves,” he wrote. “The catcher’s mitt was my brother Bob’s. He passed away eleven years ago at the age of twenty-eight, and I kept his mitt as a memento. We enjoyed many good years of ball together (I was the pitcher, he was the catcher) and I am sure he’s got a big grin on his face knowing that the glove is going to a kid who will probably sleep with it the first week or so, the way he did.”

That day in February 1986 was only the beginning. Gloves soon arrived from all over the state, and they spanned the history of the game—from fat-fingered antiques to bright new peach-basket models designed to snare anything batted in their direction. They carried worn autographs of stars like Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Phil Rizzuto, and even players like Jim Greengrass, Wally Bunker and Bump Hadley, a pitcher who played in the majors in 1926.

Casimer Rejent, a retired engineer who lives in Grosse Pointe Farms, sent the glove he got from his parents when he graduated from Toledo Catholic Central High School in 1940.

Teacher Bill Brown collected one hundred gloves at Ferndale High School. Dorian Rowland, a student at St. Joan of Arc Elementary School in St. Claire Shores, put up a poster and a box there.

The two gloves sent by Donald R. Hein of Battle Creek had tags tied to them with his address and phone number and a request, “Write me when you make the big leagues.” The pile of gloves grew, each one with a special memory.

John Walls, a Free Press engineer, came in one evening to tell me there was no way I was going to get his glove: “It’s part of me. I still use it. Wouldn’t think of giving it away, even for a good cause.” Then he picked up a glove from the pile, put it on and punched the pocket a couple of times.

“It belonged to a kid in Berkley named David Barber,” I told him, and showed him a picture of a smiling ninth-grader. The picture came in a letter with the glove David’s father had sent them.

“This first baseman’s glove was my son’s,” Ron Barber wrote. “He passed away from cancer at age fourteen. I hope some young man from San Pedro will enjoy the mitt as much as he did.”

John Walls put the letter down and left. In a few minutes he was back, carrying his glove. “I had it in my locker,” he explained. “I can always buy another one. See if you can find a kid named Juan to give it to.” He put it on the pile— next to David Barber’s glove.

As soon as we saw the three little boys in San Pedro de Macoris, we decided they probably were on their way to play baseball. One of them gripped a stick with two hands, taking swings at an imaginary ball as he walked with his friends. We stopped our van and asked if they were ballplayers.

In San Pedro, the question is purely rhetorical. All the kids there play baseball. Sugar may be the region’s most profitable export and cane fields may be the reality of these children’s lives—but Dodger Stadium is the dream.

So I sat on the curb with Jose Antonio, Daniel Ottavio and Teofilo Rosario, and told them that in the United States, in a place called Detroit, there are people who believe that proper ballplayers should have proper equipment. I gave each of them a baseball glove, a ball and a bat, and told them the people who had donated the gloves expected great things from them.

They weren’t entirely convinced the gloves were theirs to keep. They walked away, looking back until they got to the corner, where they raised their gloves over their heads and broke into a run. We could hear them laughing long after they were out of sight.

Gloves had come in by the hundreds, and the previous Sunday, with the help and cooperation of the folks at the airport in Santo Domingo, we had unloaded thirty cartons of baseball equipment. Included were 1,062 gloves, waiting to work old magic with new kids. From Michigan, with love.

Photographer John Collier and I had then loaded the van with gloves, bats, balls, T-shirts and caps, and headed for San Pedro. There we picked up the Reverend John Breslin at his church. At his suggestion, we took the first load of gloves to a desperately poor part of the city called Barrio Blanco.

It was shortly after 10 A.M., but there was already a ball game in progress on a field that had been reclaimed from a dump. A smoldering trash fire sent a haze across the outfield. The excitement and the large number of kids made it impossible to distribute the gloves in any orderly manner. Amid a lot of pushing, I simply put a glove in every outstretched hand I could reach until the box was empty. The only disappointing feeling was driving away from the barrio knowing that for every kid who got a glove, there were a dozen or more who didn’t.

In the middle of San Pedro is an old green-and-white hospital. The children’s ward is on the fourth floor. We went through the ward, talking to the youngsters and their parents, and passing out gloves and hats to children with malaria, hepatitis and dysentery. There were more smiles in the ward when we left than when we arrived. Some of them were ours.

At 4 P.M. we went to San Pedro’s Tetelo Varga baseball stadium for a ceremony with representatives of San Pedro’s twenty-one baseball leagues. The cartons from Detroit were placed along the third-base line. About four hundred kids from San Pedro filled the seats between home plate and third base.

Juan Francisco Mateo, the regional commissioner for sports in San Pedro, asked me why Americans had sent their gloves to the children of San Pedro. I told him the people in Michigan love baseball and that the children of San Pedro love baseball; when two groups of people care so much for the same thing, it brings them very close together.

He repeated that to the crowd, adding that the people of San Pedro love the people of Michigan. Then a representative from each league carried off a box of gloves to distribute to his team.

Two hours later, with the sun going down behind the stands, kids were chasing fly balls with gloves that, a short time before, had belonged to people in a part of the world these children didn’t know: the glove that Cas Rejent got when he graduated from high school in 1940; the catcher’s mitt Tom Kolinsky sent, the one that had belonged to his dead brother; the one hundred gloves from the kids at Ferndale High School; the first baseman’s mitt that had been David Barber’s until he died at fourteen.

As we drove away from the stadium, we could still hear the kids playing. The magic had passed. The old dreams were now a part of new dreams.

Neal Shine

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